Around the same time last year, I set out for this journey and stepped foot on my first international plane, expecting the best. After four months of being back in the U.S., only now do I feel like my Thai adventure is behind me. For a while, being home felt like I was waking up from a dream only to find that I was still asleep. I was stuck in a kind of limbo–my body was no longer in Thailand, but my heart was not yet in America.
Learning to live again in my native country has been more difficult and confusing than I could have predicted. Lately my body has been a vessel for my displaced and distressed emotions. I felt stiff and sick with disillusionment. Finally, the haze has lifted. Only now, in retrospect, can I view my experiences abroad in their totality and begin to reflect on the ways they have influenced my understanding of how to live.
Eight months in a foreign country is too a brief a time to claim to understand its culture. And I don’t. What I have, what I’ve gained and extracted, are just pieces. But I have learned enough to carry with me for now.
From a proud and generous people, I have learned the traditions, stories, and social norms that coalesce and define what it means to be Thai. And slowly, through my experiences, I taught myself what it means to be a foreigner, both observing and contributing in the middle of it all.
I have learned that the world and its problems are not black and white. Morality is the most nebulous of all human creations. Like anthropologist Stuart Shlegel, I began to realize “somewhere in my consciousness, the truth had finally taken hold of me that the rusty everyday patterns of our daily lives–what we believe, how we do things, whom we trust–really are no more than shared understandings in the society we were raised.” My values and my beliefs about right and wrong were unwittingly entrenched in me. I had to accept and constantly remind myself that these were not truths; they were only my opinions. Over time, the line which used to clearly define my morality became blurred, loosening many of my rigidities along with it. But there are certain precepts on which I remain firm and certain normalities that I may never be able to extricate from my molded mind.
I may never get used to watching a teacher beat her students or a family of five precariously crammed on a motorbike. I may never feel comfortable bowing to a king’s picture or squatting inches from the floor to use the bathroom without toilet paper. I may never think bleaching your armpits makes you beautiful. And that’s ok.
I have learned the importance of being conscious about my choices. There is a universal responsibility of ethical behavior that is demanded of you when travel to a country you know nothing about. One cannot ride an elephant, or a buy a bracelet made from bombs or place a dollar bill in a four-year-old, outstretched palm without considering the implications.
I have learned the language–how to read it, write it, and speak it–a key to communion with the people I was living amongst and wanted so badly to understand. I have lived in the unattractive, unromantic parts of Thailand; I have explored the exotic paradises you see on postcards. I have known ugly faces and beautiful ones. I have played the role of tourist, teacher, vagrant, and local. I have blended in nicely and stuck out sorely. I have finally known what it means to be a minority, to be treated differently because of the color of my skin and to be disadvantaged by the stereotypes that exist outside of my control. I was stronger and, many times, weaker than I ever thought I could be. I have been so overwhelmed by pure joy and contentment that my skin was not enough to contain my emotion. I have been disenchanted. And I spent more than one night thinking, So this is what it’s like to die. Many a desperate and hopeless situation has arisen. I have overcome them. And now, only now, I have overcome myself.